Chickens in the Asparagus

Animals and plants work together
By Kathleen Hatt

A hundred or so years ago, farmers routinely used animal waste to fertilize the soil, and they planted gardens where animals had been the previous winter. Farming changed, however, in the early 1900s when machines began powering farm work, and again in the 1920s when the widespread use of chemical fertilizers began supplanting manure.

Separating plant and animal production, says Andrew Marshall, education program director at the Maine Organic Gardeners and Farmers Association (MOGFA), makes animal waste a disposal problem instead of a source of soil fertility. By integrating plants and animals, plants feed the animals and animals poop and feed the plants.

A small Maine farm

John and Michele Pino grow 4 acres of asparagus, garlic and Sweet Annie on their Mooarhill Farm. Until 2004, they had a greenhouse operation, growing 150,000 seedlings for both local retail and nationwide markets. Rising prices, especially the cost of propane to heat the greenhouses, led them to explore other options. The farm is currently transitioning to four primary crops—garlic, asparagus, Sweet Annie and raspberries—for which there is a relatively local market.

After researching their market area and discovering that no one else was growing organic asparagus, a crop that requires no setting of seedlings and no artificial heat, the Pinos put 5,000 roots in the ground during the spring of 2005. Growing an all-male Jersey asparagus variety developed at Rutgers, the Pinos are aiming for an annual mid-May to mid-July harvest of 6,000 pounds. A perennial plant, asparagus takes three years to become sufficiently established to allow some cutting, and five years to reach full yield. Once established and maintained, however, asparagus will continue to yield for decades.

Organic garlic is currently being grown as a seed crop. In August 2007, the Pinos harvested 50 pounds of German extra-hardy garlic. Another variety will be selected to be grown for the table.

Another major crop at Mooarhill Farm is Sweet Annie. Sweet Annie, Artemesia annua, is a feathery blue-green foliage plant grown almost exclusively for the Maine Farmers and Gardeners’ Common Ground Fair where it has become the signature decorative plant. It requires little room, little work and few nutrients. Regarded by many as a noxious, invasive weed, Sweet Annie is used as the foundation in decorated wreaths and crowns and as a substitute for baby’s breath in floral arrangements. Although John is allergic to the fragrant Sweet Annie, the $4 a bundle selling price helps offset his discomfort.

Chickens in the asparagus—and elsewhere

What is this animal’s behavior and how do we use it to work for us?

That, says John, is a good way to begin considering integrating animals into plant growing systems. Among the things chickens eat are some weeds, clover, insect eggs, insects and the eggs of slugs. They do not disturb or eat worms because worms are active at night, whereas chickens are active during the day. Asparagus plants are too tall and too strong for chickens to eat, so at Mooarhill Farm they are put to work in the asparagus beds anytime the ground is not frozen and asparagus is not being harvested. Chickens prefer to stay relatively close to their coop, but within their fenced area they will distribute their manure— unlike pigs, which drop their waste in one corner of their pen.

Mooarhill Farm booth and banner at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners' Common Ground Fair.

To enable chickens to do well what they do naturally and to do it without burning plants, their enclosure is moved daily, or at most, every four days. John uses a portable, electric 2-by-3-inch mesh fence that he does not normally electrify. Every day he moves it to another side of the henhouse. On the fourth day, he moves the henhouse.

Before moving the fence, John often adds a source of carbon. Although livestock alone increase soil fertility, John strongly suggests that some form of carbon also be added. Good sources of carbon include shavings (extremely high in carbon), straw, hay, wood chips or leaves. When the chickens are in the asparagus, he puts a source of carbon on top of the asparagus crowns each time the chickens are moved.

Just for the Common Ground Fair, Michele and John Pino cut Sweet Annie. Michele and John Pino in their booth at the three-day Maine Farmers and Gardeners' Common Ground Fair.

In the winter, Mooarhill Farm’s chickens are kept busy producing compost—and heat—in the henhouse. By adding shavings and a little water to the manure, if necessary, about once a week, John is able to avoid purchasing propane. One 20-degree December day, when manure and shavings in the henhouse were about 2 feet deep, the temperature of the henhouse floor was 80 degrees.

The 50 chickens at Mooarhill Farm are Rhode Island Reds, production strain. Layers, they were selected because, unlike meat birds, they are not too large to work effectively. Meat birds would also have to be replaced frequently since they reach their optimum slaughtering size in only eight weeks. Even without the income from their eggs, the chickens at Mooarhill Farm more than pay for themselves by eating bugs and slug eggs in the fields and in the greenhouse, and by manuring crops. To supplement the insects they eat, chickens are fed grain. In about 10 months, 50 chickens eat approximately 1 ton of grain.

Superb squashes.

More animals, more jobs

“Put animals on and they work for you,” says John. Livestock (green manure) on cover crops add fertility to the soil. Pigs and goats together are great at making plowable land following clearcutting, much as was done in colonial times. Pigs are extremely respectful of electric fencing; goats are respectful of no fence, and will eat down suckers on fresh stumps. To encourage pigs to destroy stumps, John recalls the old technique of putting corn under the stump. Pigs will root out the corn (put in place with the aid of a crowbar) and destroy the stump, but pigs do not work fast—it may take years for them to demolish one stump. “If you want stumps gone fast,” says John, “hire an excavator.”

Geese and ducks may be put to work on any grass, such as in orchards. They are not used in asparagus beds because there is generally no grass for them to eat there. If there were grass in an asparagus bed, John suggests using ducks and geese only when the asparagus is large. Ducks will also eat the slugs that chickens ignore. On the downside, ducks will trample gardens and they like to eat brassicas. Traditionally, and on a farm with a variety of livestock, farmers would first use cows to increase soil fertility, followed by sheep, then ducks, chickens and geese. The ducks, chickens and geese eat the insects that ruminants ignore.

Only once, and before planting a field for the first time, John puts down 3 feet of horse manure to increase organic matter. He then covers the field with plastic. As soon as the day after putting down the manure, he pokes holes in the plastic and plants cucurbit seedlings. The second year he adds leaves and runs his chickens over the field for a month or so before planting brassicas or other heavy feeders.

While chickens are the Pinos’ primary working animals, many possibilities exist for animals and plants to work together. The reward is a symbiotic agricultural system which is both sustainable and cheap. At my farm, says John, “chickens are the heroes.”

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and editor, and a frequent contributor to Moose River Media. She lives in Henniker, N.H.